After Oculus Rift: Lavalle Returns to Campus

1/21/2015 5:56:00 AM By Rick Kubetz, College of Engineering

In spring 2014, both the business and technology news pages excitedly announced Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, the maker of a virtual reality gaming headset called Oculus Rift. CS Professor Steve LaValle, an Illinois alumnus (PhD EE ’95), has a special insight into the development of VR technology. Since taking leave from the university in September 2012, LaValle helped lead Oculus’ R&D efforts as its head scientist.

CS Professor Steve LaValle models the Oculus Rift.
CS Professor Steve LaValle models the Oculus Rift.

Last fall, LaValle returned to campus, splitting time between the university and Oculus. He brought with him a unique insight into the development of this new technology, the incredible experience working with a very successful start-up, and the task of building a future VR “ecosystem” of programmers and designers.

What is your current relationship with Oculus, and why did you return to the university?

There are many reasons why I am returning, including family ties, but the main reason is that I love the academic culture here. It is a great privilege to work with so many bright, passionate students and have access to brilliant researchers in almost any field that I might wander into.

It is true that I am splitting my time between Oculus and Illinois. VR technology is exploding and I think we are just scratching the surface in regards to its potential impact. I am even more excited about bringing my experiences to the classroom. That’s where the real future of VR lies.

How do you think your experiences with Oculus will influence your own teaching and future research?

The opportunities for positive impact are overwhelming. This semester, I am teaching VR class that will leverage my experiences at Oculus, including development of core software, interactions with content developers, and human perception studies. My wife, Anna Yershova, who is CS alumna [PhD ’08] and Oculus research scientist, will be teaching a course on computational linear algebra, which is also inspired by Oculus activity.

Steve LaValle and Anna Yershova
Steve LaValle and Anna Yershova

It is easier than ever to jump right in and make a VR experience; however, with VR there are so many surprising, counterintuitive outcomes because the interaction between the human body and the devices we build is not widely understood. I want to teach students the fundamental principles that we have learned so far and likely to survive the test of time, so that they can play a leading role in shaping this emerging ecosystem.

What is next for your own research and how might it impact CS at Illinois?

I have worked for decades in robotics, with my expertise in motion planning, sensing, and filtering being most useful in my early time at Oculus. While there, I became excited about the human component. VR works by hijacking the human vision system—perhaps our most crucial sense—and now we are engineering systems that interfere with its operation. This should have a dramatic effect on all engineering designs and the development of content on this emerging platform.

In addition to research on improving VR itself, many exciting areas are emerging that leverage VR as one component. There are seemingly endless possibilities in art, entertainment, health care, communication, education, and so on.